Setting up an online community


Sam Burrough, Performance Learning Group Last Modified  31 August 2016

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Step 1: Establish purpose
Before you choose a platform you need to clearly define the purpose of your online community. Ask yourself:

Why do I want to create an online community?
  • To support a formal learning programme e.g. leadership development or induction?
  • To encourage informal peer to peer knowledge sharing?
  • To support collaboration as part of a project?
  • How does this link to current business objectives?
Do I have an executive or senior leadership sponsor?

Having a sponsor will aid buy-in across the organisation and will help with decisions around budget.

What features will I need in my online community?

When considering the features you will need in your online community, remember that there are many platforms you could use to set up an online community. While they vary in look and feel, they all share certain core features that lend themselves to learning, collaboration and knowledge sharing. The taxonomy of core and additional features included in the Features of online communities resource will help you understand the terminology and application of these features.
Step 2: Research
Learning and development teams rarely have the luxury of owning either the technology, or the policies, when it comes to online communities. So it’s important to understand which business areas feel that they have, or should have, control or ownership in this area. Start by answering these questions:
  • Are there any relevant existing communities, on or offline, that you can build on? For example: Technical teams that already meet up or regularly share updates; existing online groups on SharePoint or enterprise social networks; email distribution groups focused on a specific topic like product updates; or marketing news.
  • What available technology platforms do you have access to?
  • Are there any new platforms on the horizon? Talk to your IT and marketing and comms teams, as they are most likely to be leading this and will often be essential partners in such projects.
  • Can people in your organisation access external social media sites like Google Plus or Linked in? Some of these have private group features which could be used to create your community site. It’s also a good litmus test of organisational attitudes towards social media. If you have access expect fewer barriers than if you don’t.
  • Do you have any budget to purchase a platform?
Step 3: Insight
Once you’ve completed steps 1 and 2 you should have a good idea of the challenges and constraints you will face in the context of your organisation. Hopefully you’ve also uncovered some insights around how your people are using similar technology inside and outside of work and the attitudes they hold. This is an essential step towards building empathy and understanding of the people you are designing for.

Online communities are facilitated by technology, but really they are about people. While it is very important to align your online community to meet business objectives, it is equally important to create value for the people within that organisation and create a positive user experience. We have to understand the people and most importantly the culture of the organisation, before we can hope to effectively create or manage online communities. Start by asking yourself the following questions to develop your understanding of the challenge ahead:
  • What problems could online communities solve for people in your organisation?
  • How do people in your organisation communicate?
  • How large is the community?
  • Are they geographically dispersed?
  • Do they share the same language?
  • How does your marketing team use external social media?
  • How could effective online communities make working at your organisation more rewarding or less frustrating?
  • What are the main barriers within your culture that might hinder the use of online communities?
  • Which stakeholders in your organisation are both influential and likely to recognise the value of online communities?
  • How can you get their support?
Step 4: Choosing a Platform
If you’ve answered the questions above you will, by now, realise that you probably have fewer options than you think. The choice of platform in most organisations is governed by IT, marketing, internal communications and your budget.

Most platforms, whether they are private enterprise systems, known as Enterprise Social Networks (ESN) or public external sites share the same core features. See the Features of online communities resource for more information and some examples.

When choosing between external and internal sites it is helpful to remember the following points:

External sites are useful when:
  • you have little or no budget
  • the participants belong to different organisations
  • your IT team allow access to these sites from your work network
  • the conversation and content you expect to see in the community are not sensitive or protected by legislation.
Internal sites are useful when:
  • you need more secure private communities
  • you want to move away from email to improve internal communications or even replace your intranet
  • all the participants work for the same organisation.
Most modern commercial ESNs are hosted in the Cloud; this means you can often create groups that people outside the organisation can access. This allows you to invite customers, supply chain or other business partners to participate. This can offer a ‘best of both worlds’ scenario, giving you security, control and wider access.
Step 5: Reviewing needs against available resources
Given what you now know about the available tools, the attitudes to this type of technology and the internal politics around who owns it ask yourself the following: Can I deliver an experience that meets the needs of the business and the users with the available technology?

If the answer to this question is yes, you can move on to step 6. If not, ask yourself:
  • If there is no suitable existing technology, do I have any budget to explore paid platforms?
  • Is the community I’m looking to build time-bound or ongoing? (Some platforms charge on a per user per month basis so if, for example, you wanted to set up a community to support a project or training programme for 50 people for six months, it would cost you significantly less than finding a solution for the whole organisation)
  • Are other departments (e.g. IT/internal comms) exploring this approach and could you work with them to find a mutually beneficial solution?
Consider the answers to these questions to inform your choice of platform.

It’s vital that you make sure that it has all of the core features you need, but also take time to try them out for yourself and if possible ask other users to test it. How easy and intuitive are the features? The user experience is an essential part of making online communities successful. If people find the platform frustrating or difficult they simply won’t use it.
Step 6: Implementation
Once you’ve chosen a platform there are usually three basics tasks to complete. The details will vary from platform to platform, so speak to your platform provider and IT department to get more detailed information. Broadly speaking you need to:
  1. Grant access to the relevant people.
  2. Assign roles to effectively manage and monitor usage. Ask yourself: Who is responsible for technology issues? Who is responsible for setting policy on acceptable use? Who is responsible for answering user support queries? Who will moderate the community (i.e. check that it is being used as intended)? Who is responsible for looking at metrics and reporting? Use the key roles in online communities resource to help answer these questions.
  3. Communicate that the platform exists to the users and explain what it is for and how people can and should use it. Consider a combination of posters, email, live demonstrations in communal areas, webinar demonstrations, intranet articles, and manager communications.
You may encounter some resistance to introducing social tools. It’s not uncommon to find people who think they are a fad or not appropriate for business use. These views are much less common than they used to be, but if you do need to reply to them the following approaches can be useful:
  • Don’t call it 'social.' Often just dropping the use of the words 'social network' is enough to keep the naysayers quiet. Use terms like collaboration, communication, knowledge sharing or discussion instead.
  • Make it clear how using the platform can support key business objectives. As you start to gather examples of how the platform is helping people to solve problems, you can use these to make your point.
  • If your marketing department is already using social media externally, you can link the internal activity to these initiatives as a natural progression.
Step 7: Facilitation
Congratulations! You now have all the building blocks in place for a successful online community. Here comes the hard part: Building participation, maintaining engagement, and driving value to address the needs you identified back at step 3.

This will depend on the nature and purpose of the community. You can find detailed information on the following related topics in the following tools:
Step 8: Evaluation
It’s important to understand the data your community generates because it provides a valuable way to both justify the cost of starting and running the community and a way to link to real world outcomes.

First of all, identify the simple quantitative metrics you are going to report on. Consider the number of:
  • active users (measured by log-ins)
  • comments
  • links or documents posted
  • replies or conversations.
Create a file to make notes of valuable interactions that you spot on the community and follow up with the people involved to get more detail. Here is an example:
  • You spot a question posted by one of the users asking how to complete a certain task.
  • The question was answered and resolved by someone else in another team.
  • Follow up by contacting the person who posted the question and ask them how much time this saved them and the impact of this on the customer or the business.
You can also run quarterly surveys or ad hoc polls, to get regular user feedback and examples of how activity in the community has contributed to solving problems or strategic goals. It is also helpful to look for trends in the data. Are some areas of the organisation making more effective use of the community than others? If so, what are they doing differently and how might you transfer their success to other areas?

Communicate the success stories widely and make sure that senior leaders are kept informed to build and maintain support.